One thing that I feel I did very right earlier in my life was building a strong, communication-based relationship with my wife in the years before our marriage. We talked about everything, building up to a point where no topic was off limits between us and we could expect a truly honest answer from each other, and from that communication came a strong foundation of love and trust. It was perhaps the best thing either one of us have ever done, because it became the foundation of an incredibly strong marriage.
One of the most difficult topics to discuss was money issues, largely because of the taboo nature of it. In fact, it took us years to break down that final wall, even though we had found a very strong and deep comfort level when it came to other topics, and we both found that when we finally started communicating about money, it was incredibly valuable.
What did I learn from this experience? Without a doubt, it is far better to talk about money sooner rather than later when your relationship gets deeply serious. Here are some guidelines – and some specific topics to discuss – for when the time comes to talk about such things. You’ll be glad you did.
Before You Get Started…
First of all, realize that total honesty is the only answer here if you expect to have a long, lasting, and loving relationship. Once you finally get up the courage to address these issues, don’t hold anything back. If you find yourself biting your lip or tucking away a little piece of information or two, you’re creating a relationship of mistrust. I’m not talking about things like not telling your partner about their Christmas gift, either – it’s rather obvious where the line is in this case.
Expect some disagreement as well. You’re likely going to have very different feelings on how money should be handled in your relationship. If you find yourself being truly honest and meshing well, consider yourself lucky. Very lucky.
Don’t expect to answer these questions immediately, either. Often, fundamental financial decisions aren’t made in an afternoon. If something seems like it’s building to a serious disagreement and you’re not making any progress, let a few weeks pass before talking about it again. During that time, try hard to see the situation through your partner’s eyes and understand why they want things to be that way.
For some couples, these topics might be very easy and you might find that you’re both in very strong agreement. For others, each question might be grounds for conflict. Likely, you’ll find yourself somewhere in the middle, and that’s perfectly normal and healthy.
Twelve Things To Talk About
Where do you see us being in five years? Ten years? Twenty five years? Try to flesh out as much as you can here, but realize that the future isn’t set in stone. The reason for discussing this is so that you have some idea what the dreams and the goals look like for each other.
What does our complete financial state look like? Lay everything out. Every debt. Every drop of income. Everything. Don’t hide that $4,000 credit card statement, as you’re just building a foundation on top of a lie.
Should we share our money or maintain separate accounts? Who should be the primary caretaker of the accounts? Many people will argue that any married couple should combine all accounts – my wife and I did not come to that conclusion. Talk it out and figure out what’s right for you.
When do we intend to make major shared purchases, like a house? How much do we intend to spend on such a purchase (roughly)? This is one area where people often just assume that their partner sees things the same way that they do. It’s not true. My wife and I, for example, had very different views on when a house purchase was appropriate, and my wife was ready to buy three years before I was even willing to consider it.
Are children a possibility? Although this is a very deep emotional decision, it’s also a financial one as well. Make sure you’re on the same page when it comes to children, because while having a child is a deeply fulfilling endeavor, it’s also a very expensive one, often more expensive than people without children even realize. It also means some significant lifestyle changes, too.
Are we both committed to our career path? Sometimes, the support of a spouse provides a strong situation for one member of a marriage to make a career leap they would not have otherwise considered. This is a great discussion point.
Are we both saving for retirement? When’s the retirement target? This was one financial issue that my wife and I talked about quite a bit before we were married, especially since we both were already putting away a substantial amount into 401(k)/403(b)s. Just make sure that you’re both aware of what the other is doing and that you realize that without putting money away for that inevitable day, you likely will never retire.
Do we want an urban, suburban, or rural life? You might think the answer is self-evident, but it’s often not. Take Kathy’s story from a while back – she and her spouse at first thought urban living was self-evident, but after getting married, they began to talk about things and realized that perhaps it wasn’t the obvious answer that they thought it was and then began plotting a move to a much more rural setting. If they had talked things out first, they might have moved rural right off the bat, saving themselves substantial time, money, and happiness.
What’s our financial risk tolerance? Can we tolerate short term losses to aim for long term gains? For some, losing some money in the short run is completely fine if it means some years of 20% returns down the road. For others, watching the balance of their investments drop like a rock over years is just too painful. Figure out where you’re both at on this, so that if you make investments from your shared money, you don’t wind up with your money in something far too risky for the other person’s tastes – which can result in a very bitter conflict.
What’s the balance between work and leisure? Some couples might consist of two people that are very career-oriented. Other couples might consist of people who could care less about a career, or perhaps some mix of the two. The only problem comes about when one person’s expectations completely miss the behavior of the partner.
Is a prenupital agreement appropriate? Is one of you bringing far more into the marriage than the other, or expecting to earn far more than the other during the marriage? You may want to discuss a prenupital agreement, but there needs to be an air of honesty here – if you feel one is useful, don’t hold back in saying so.
Are there any known burdens that will likely crop up in the future? For example, does one of you have an ailing parent that may need special care? What about dependent pre-existing children? Do one of you have a major illness that may start showing symptoms? While these are not usually make or break issues, they often provide the basis for some deeply insightful conversations.
Two Books Worth Reading
I strongly encourage any couple that is considering spending their lives together to take the time and each read Your Money or Your Life (the book club of YMOYL might be very useful) and Smart Couples Finish Rich, but do it together. I recommend that each of you read a chapter, then discuss it together.
One technique my wife and I found useful was reading a chapter of such a book aloud on long car trips, with the passenger reading and then both partners discussing the topics. We would just stop and start talking whenever an important point came up, and we wound up discovering a lot about each other.
No matter what you do, though, don’t put off these conversations. They can be the key to establishing a strong foundation for your relationship and building a much stronger understanding of each other. In fact, if you’ve never opened such a door with your partner, today is the best day to do it, because tomorrow it’s very easy to find a reason to put this off.